Lessons Learned from the Young People’s Just Transition Project

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“I would say to young people… let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do- every one- our share to redeem the world despite all the absurdities and all the frustration and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art. You’re not a machine. When you are young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.”        -Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel

Heschel’s words were at the forefront of my mind as we sat in our final closing circle of the Young People’s Just Transition Project (YPJTP) on August 16. Reflecting back on the twelve weeks we spent building together- the six of us in Maypop and our eight new comrades- I realized that at some point along the way this program became filled with so much life, so much vibrancy that it had broken from programmatic confines, exceeding measurable outcomes, not to mention my own expectations. I looked at each person seated in the circle and saw the moments that had fortified our relationship, making both of us a little wiser, a little stronger, a little more open-hearted. Sprawled out on the floor of my room, working together for hours on a facilitation plan that would guide the group in exploring Occupy and Arab Spring. Sharing a tub of ice cream in celebration of our deeper understanding of community- and the solid three month crash course the summer was. Chanting at the top of our lungs in defense of public education. As the first person in the circle to speak my closing statement, my voice was filled with gratitude for the experience to feel my power- and our collective power- more than ever before.

Maypop’s initial vision for a summer project would have amounted to a very different closing circle then the one just described. We envisioned a mobilization of young people converging on sites of fossil fuel extraction to commit mass civil disobedience. Our previous experiences with direct action and organizing convergences of hundreds of students had led us to believe that the route to effecting change was in creating  “flashpoint” moments bringing together a critical mass of people for action. But the vision for the summer evolved as we asked ourselves the question: “What kind of organizing does this current political moment demand?” As we built relationships with racial and economic justice groups in Philly and nationally, we began to see the transformative power of building deep and enduring roots in place, and with people.

We began to see the first step of growing a mass movement as nurturing hubs of resistance on the local level that, once strong enough, can link up with other hubs. We decided the YPJTP would be grounded in Philadelphia, our home.The decision to limit the program to eight fellows allowed us to prioritize substantial mentorship and a tight-knit learning community, pushing back on the paradigm that sees students as bodies to mobilize for actions rather than organizers to invest in. As the name suggests, the YPJTP was informed by our understanding of a just transition, a framework used by parts of the labor movement and grassroots environmental justice groups to describe the cross-sector movement we need to transition away from an economy that exploits land, labor, and people. The major components of the program served as an experiment in what young people can offer, and what they need, in order to contribute to a just transition rooted in place:

1. Support Space: Transitioning away from an extractive economy takes time and sweat. Affinity groups like the YPJTP can provide young people with a support system that enables long-term commitment to the work. In addition to fostering an overall culture of inviting and embracing people’s whole selves, we met weekly for a support meeting to engage in a variety of activities that prompted the group to give and receive support.

2. Study Meeting: A just transition requires us to unite across issue areas, so that our struggles can learn from each other and grow stronger. The YPJTP met weekly for study, covering topics such as ecology and the Left, solidarity economy, cultural organizing, and building power, with examples from labor and community organizing, nonviolent direct action campaigns, artists, healing workers, and community sharing economies.  We approached this study with an eye for synthesizing these traditions, identifying possibilities for organizing models that combine the strengths of various traditions.

3. Partner Organizations: As young people, we have so much to learn from those who have been doing the work for a long time. Each participant worked part-time with a grassroots organization in Philly, adding capacity to the organization while also acting as “pollinators” between groups with issues as diverse as immigrant rights and anti-mountaintop removal coal-mining. Although not all, and in fact most organizations’ missions were not explicitly climate-focused, the framework of a just transition allows us to see how each is working to dismantle the true root of climate change: an extractive economic and political system centered on inequity.

At the close of the summer, we took time to assess our work, both through self-reflection and through feedback from our participants. Here are a handful of lessons learned:

There is a hunger for intentional relationship, support, and community.

In an illuminating conversation, one participant spoke to me about his experience with relationship- and community-building in the program. The program’s culture enabled him to step into a role he really enjoys, making himself available to support others in difficult times and to do favors for people like offering to use his car for errands. “That’s how our economy works even though we’re taught that it’s not,” he said. When he told me this I recalled the first study meeting where he sat with another participant- someone he’d just met- for hours after the meeting as she processed emotions that came up during the meeting. He also spoke about the way the Support Space incorporated a variety of exercises allowing people to share deeply beyond just using words. Many times in the Support Space, he led the group in activities that involved moving our bodies as a mode of exploring support. Though this was just one participant’s experience, we found that his sentiments about this portion of the program were widely held.

One of the most common reflections from participants was how important support, relationship, and healing were to their overall experience of the program. The lesson here feels clear: the extractive economy we’re fighting wreaks devastation in our communities, relationships, and selves as much as on our wetlands, streams, and mountains. There is immense power in creating containers like the YPJTP that open the possibility to re-define relationship in ways that aren’t often provided for us. It is an essential investment to organize our movements in a way that affirms the fractal nature, as Adrienne Maree Brown would say, of oppression and liberation- our commitment to creating life-affirming energy systems must include a daily commitment to life-affirming organizing spaces.

Bringing different organizing traditions together is messy- and so worth it.

With the varied organizing backgrounds of program participants, partnering with a wide range of Philly organizations, and our study curriculum, we aimed to maximize diversity of organizing styles and traditions that converged in the YPJTP. After this summer, Maypop’s commitment to deepening our understanding of organizing traditions and the synergy that is possible amongst them has been strengthened. For young people in particular, offering the frame of “organizing traditions” is useful in acknowledging the often invisibilized histories that have shaped the struggles we see today. At the same time, the frame also prompts us to identify the underlying practice and ideology of different types of social justice work in contrast to others. These are critical thinking skills that challenge young people who become activated in one tradition and may take that tradition’s underlying assumptions for granted. Discussing organizing traditions is an accessible way to bring young people to the strategy table in the journey of creating new points of collaboration between groups and re-mixing traditions.

The YPJTP also revealed the challenges that come with bringing different organizing traditions into conversation. First, each participant brought fairly cemented assumptions about what or who doesn’t create change based on their respective organizing background. A labor organizer struggled to see real merit in cultural work. An artist thought movement theory to be far removed from the lives of everyday people. Maypop’s seen this pattern play out in countless movement spaces- the tendency to look for dominance when comparing organizing traditions rather than seeing strength in diversity. Second, the YPJTP highlighted the way these differences are much more than theoretical. They interact with our self-limiting beliefs, impacting our stories of self and what we believe we’re capable of. From my personal experience as a woman who identifies with traditions of healing as social justice work, I’ve discredited more structure-based traditions from labor and community organizing in the past because I’ve felt unqualified to do that kind of work. Third, the project exposed the emotion and pain that accompanies these tensions. Maypop got a good sense of the persistent healing and re-buildilng of respect that will need to happen between activists in order to move towards synthesizing the beautiful and invaluable elements every tradition has to offer.

Several practices emerged as vital: Experiential learning, group facilitation, and “showing up.”

In addition to the themes above, three intentional practices of the program emerged as especially impactful for participants:

Experiential Learning

In facilitating group spaces, we emphasized the importance of activities that allow participants to learn through doing. Since people remember 20% of what someone presents to them, but 90% of what they say or do themselves, we created agendas that require moving our bodies, writing or creating visual art, drawing from personal experience and stories, and breaking into smaller groups to more deeply explore each person’s opinions and questions. Because this facilitation style seeks to serve many different styles of learning, participants found it rewarding in a way that academic or strictly discussion-based meetings can fail to be.

Good Group Facilitation

After using the first few weeks to model the kind of space Maypop wanted to create through our own group facilitation, we invited the participants to begin co-facilitating meetings with a member of Maypop. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that the chance to act as facilitators allowed them to build their skills, determine the course of their own learning and growth, and feel ownership over the project. Many participants requested more training and practice in this skill, a factor they said made a world of the difference between the YPJTP and other organizing spaces they have been in. For future programs of this kind, we would consider holding a facilitation training at the beginning of the program and creating opportunities to incorporate feedback on participant’s facilitation style.

“Showing Up”

From the beginning, we actively encouraged everyone (Maypop and participants) to send open invitations to the group, including to actions and rallies, film screenings, workshops, and canvassing events. Many participants told us that the expectation of “showing up” for organizations doing important work, even to events that were outside their usual scene, pushed them to experience and grow their respect for different styles of organizing. In addition to turning out to events, showing up for Maypop also entails a way of carrying oneself that communicates respect and initiates relationship with other organizers- a skill that has been vital to us as new, young organizers that we hoped to impart on participants. And we didn’t just value showing up for organizations, but for each other: birthdays, parties, events we had planned–we showed up to affirm and support each other.

The three months of this program seem to represent both years of lessons and insights, and mere milliseconds in time compared to the social change work that has come before and needs to follow. There is no way we could fit all the lessons of the YPJTP into this (already long!) blogpost. But for those interested in a more detailed account, including sample agendas of each program space, materials we used, what we would do differently in the future, and more, please stay tuned for our full report, to be posted on our website by mid-November, or reach out to us.

Photos from Young People’s Just Transition Project Community Banquet:
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